WELLFLEET — Ebben Ryder-O’Malley was out lobstering from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. on June 13. He spent the next day at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, assembling his tools. Then, on June 15, after picking up an inch-thick engine manual from a boatyard in Chatham, he settled in to take 10 different tests designed to measure the aptitude of a skilled marine tradesman.
Eleven days later, Ryder-O’Malley, a Wellfleet native and member of Cape Tech’s class of 2021, learned he had won the top prize in marine service technology in this year’s SkillsUSA national championships.
SkillsUSA is a nonprofit organization that promotes excellence among students preparing for careers in the trades. Students in more than 4,650 schools across the country take part.
Ryder-O’Malley qualified for the national championships after his first-place finishes at both the district and state levels, according to Peggy Reilly-O’Brien, the school’s SkillsUSA coordinator.
During the competition, he displayed hands-on knowledge of outboard motors as he completed several troubleshooting tests, explaining the steps to the judges who were watching via Zoom. He participated in a mock job interview with a representative from Yamaha, then took several written tests.
During the test, Ryder-O’Malley thanked the judges for their time at the end of each round, said Reilly-O’Brien, “and you could tell it was genuine.”
Ryder-O’Malley said he has known he wanted to work on boats since he was in elementary school. He got a job at Wellfleet Marine when he was 14.
The way he sees it, people have a skewed perception of the trades. “A lot of people think, ‘You must just get dirty and come home and do nothing.’ ” he said. “No, that’s not it.” He knows that servicing boats requires a diverse set of skills — plumbing, carpentry, and the ability to navigate social situations.
The spotlight the contest puts on the trades is one reason the SkillsUSA competition appealed to Ryder-O’Malley. He had entered it twice before, but a paperwork problem in his sophomore year, and then the pandemic during his junior year, prevented him from making it to nationals.
He knew he wanted to get there. Cape Tech has a history of strong performance in the competition — from 2006 to 2016, students at the school won eight national medals in marine service technology. What he hoped for, he said, was the chance to say, “Look, I can do it, too.”
On the day of the competition, Ryder-O’Malley brought a cooler full of lobsters as a thank you to the teachers who helped him prepare. After he won, Reilly-O’Brien brought him homemade garlic bread. Before Covid, she had promised that, if he made it to nationals, she would take him out to dinner in Louisville, Ky., where the SkillsUSA finals have been held in the past. With the events being held remotely, that couldn’t happen, she said, but she still wanted to fulfill her end of the bargain.
Reilly-O’Brien says she still owes the winner a dinner out. But she knows that may not happen. “This kid works all the time,” she said. “His parents have done a good job raising him. He’s got depth. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve come to love him in the three years I’ve known him.”
This August, a few weeks after his medal arrives, Ryder-O’Malley will enroll in Mass. Maritime’s marine engineering program. He wants to work on ships and see more of the world. But he also plans to stay rooted here.
“I say I want to leave all the time, like when I want to go to the grocery store and it takes an hour and a half to get there because of traffic,” Ryder-O’Malley said. “But I love Wellfleet. It’s my home. All my people are here.”